SAN FRANCISCO – Airbnb has sued the city and county of San Francisco over a law that puts companies like it on the hook if they promote short-term housing rentals by a host that hasn’t registered with the city and county.
“As the ordinance’s own sponsors have described it, the ordinance holds ‘hosting platforms accountable for the hundreds of units (rented by) unscrupulous individuals’ posting listings on their websites,” the court complaint reads. “As such, the ordinance unquestionably treats online platforms such as Airbnb as the publisher or speaker of third-party content and is completely preempted by the CDA.”
In 2014, San Francisco began requiring residents who rent rooms or entire homes to tourists through websites like Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway to register. But enforcement has been an issue: Only about 1,400 of an estimated 7,000 hosts had registered more than a year later. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an amendment June 14 requiring websites to vet local listings and only post those whose hosts are registered. It fines companies if they don’t comply with the law.
Airbnb opposed the addition to the law and now has officially challenged it through a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, claiming it violates Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects online services that publish third-party content from being held liable for the speech and actions of others.
City officials have said they expected this argument and are ready for a legal challenge.
“The Communications Decency Act doesn't render all business laws moot simply because a business happens to operate on the internet,” Andrea Guzman, public information coordinator at the city attorney’s Office, told the Northern California Record. The ordinance is not set up to punish platforms for user content, she added.
“It's not regulating user content at all – it's regulating the business activity of the hosting platform itself,” she said. “San Francisco requires hosting platforms to facilitate tax collection, and to verify that tourist rental hosts are properly licensed. It's simply a duty to verify information that's already required of a regulated business activity.”
She compared the requirement to online alcohol and cigarette vendors who are required to verify the age of a customer, whether online or in person.
“I'm aware that some advocates for tourist rental platforms contend that local laws like San Francisco's somehow violate the CDA,” Guzman said. “But I also know that litigation and litigation threats are typical of the positioning done by those who were unsuccessful in the legislative process.”